My mood is a dreary, too. I haven't wanted to come here for the past few weeks, because I didn't want to commit it to writing, but others have now, so. J1 Ruffles is missing. He hasn't been seen by any of the researchers since late November. Jpod had split up, though, with J2 Granny and J8 Speiden (J1's frequent companions) off on their own somewhere and the rest of them cruising southern Puget Sound off and on, so I figured he was off with J2 and J8 and the others. But now the others have rejoined the pod, and J1 has still not been seen.
The worst of it is, there's no way to know, not for months. We don't know their ways. L87 Onyx has been traveling with Jpod lately, which is a bit unusual. Lpod has been spotted in Californian waters over the winter, which means L87's family is a long ways away; maybe J1 is with them? The Ks came back for a little while over the winter and now are off doing whatever they do this time of year. Until all three pods come back together in the summer, we can't know for sure if Ruffles is really gone or not. But I noticed that the Whale Museum has taken him off their list of adoptable whales.
I can't give up hope, but I am preparing myself. Ruffles is such an easily identified whale, he is a favorite of many, but I think he also had a way of creating connections with individual humans. He is never shy of the boats, likes to come up close and take a good look, and give a good look to all the clamoring monkeys on board. He has been, as I have mentioned before, a regular visitor in my dreams. Late last October I dreamed of him; he had come into shallow water with the rest of the pod, and I was with a number of other people who were in the water interacting with the whales. I felt very close to him, a deep friendship, a contentedness in each others' presence. But I was left with an unsettled feeling when I woke, a feeling I tried to banish but that has grown since I watched the sighting reports over the winter months and noticed he was not among them.
At 60, Ruffles would be the oldest male in the SRKW population. The next oldest male is many years his junior. I attended a lecture last week about Conservation Canines and the work they have done with the SRKWs. While there, I overheard a well known researcher saying that his last day out with Ruffles, following downwind, he could smell Ruffles' breath and it wasn't a healthy smell. Not encouraging. Still, I can hardly believe that Ruffles would fall when his own mother, J2 Granny, will be reaching 100 years old this year (give or take a few years; her birth year is an estimate).
Female orcas have a sad advantage over males in these days of toxic contamination of the ocean food chain: they are able to offload some of their toxic body burden to their calves and the milk they feed them, but the males have no such escape valve. Obviously, this fact is not a happy one in terms of the calves' health, and indeed probably contributes to their high mortality in the first year. In Granny's case, though, she probably stopped reproducing before the worst of the contaminates entered the orcas' food stream, so her body burden is probably pretty high. (This is conjecture; maybe the data actually exists somewhere because I know samples were taken from the SRKW in the past, but I don't know where I would find that information about specific individuals.) In any case, it seems that Granny and Ruffles may be genetically predisposed to long life and some resistance to the toxins they have been faced with.
One of my sister naturalists did report that she thought she had seen Ruffles, traveling with Granny and Speiden about a mile ahead of the rest of Jpod, in late February. She is someone who knows the whales on sight well, but she couldn't confirm it. I know she is worried about him too. A lot of people are--Ruffles even has his own Facebook page now, where some are already eulogizing him and others are expressing their hope that he will be returning soon. I'm firmly in the second camp. I won't let go of hope until a full year goes by with no sightings, which has been the traditional time that has to elapse before the researches declare a member of the SRKW presumed dead.
I will welcome the spring's returning, the calls of the brants flocking along the shore, the salmonberry blossoms bringing the rufous hummingbirds back. I will find peace with my hands in the earth, preparing the garden for the season. But my heart is heavy with worry for my dear friend.
Photo by R. Milke